After the Storm, Beyond Avenue X, Isolation Lingers

Photograph: Mark Gimein/Bloomberg

Sign on an apartment complex near Coney Island.

If you want to get out to the water at Coney Island the way to go is to take the subway to Avenue X, in a neighborhood called Gravesend, then head east on the bus. The way not to go is to get off at Avenue X and  follow the empty elevated line to the two Coney Island train stations that have not reopened, past the lines of gas-less trucks and cars with their windows bashed in.

From Gravesend the walk is two miles, and though electricity has been restored, there is still almost no one out at dusk. The few people on the street stop, look back, check you out, and wait for you to pass if they hear you walking behind them. At the end of the street netting blocks off the path to the beach. The only way forward is through the closed train station empty except for, dumbfoundingly, a boy aged around 10 playing with a remote-controlled car.

In disaster, the polite thing to say is that we all come together and help each other. The less you have been hit, the easier that is. In my own neighborhood (no blackout; damage: several large felled trees, one directly on top of an unlucky car) residents trade gossip in the park and troop over with donations for the shelter set up at the Brooklyn Technical High School.

At the shore, by the endless blocks of jumbo-sized apartment blocks that recall the outer neighborhoods of Russian cities, it doesn’t feel that way. The sense of isolation in tower blocks is magnified by the reality of isolation: a train system that no longer runs, cars that no one wants to drive so as not to risk using up the last gallon of gasoline.

In catastrophe, communities (as, for instance, Rebecca Solnit details in her 2009 book A Paradise Built in Hell) can come together. For those in the more privileged neighborhoods in New York, both with and without power, that is a small upside of disaster. Not so in the places where, in the best of the days, featureless buildings and the shadow of the elevated train project their indifference. It’s in places like this that you feel the weight of catastrophe, and understand why those in the thick of the disaster often talk less about their losses than about the feeling of having been abandoned.

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